Prohibition of assignment clause did not prevent a transfer of rights by operation of law

The Court of Appeal has held that a clause in a contract that prohibited the parties from assigning their rights under the contract did not prevent one party’s rights being transferred automatically to an insurer by operation of law. The case shines a light on how the courts may interpret a prohibition of assignment clause.

What happened?

Dassault Aviation SA v Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co. Ltd [2024] EWCA Civ 5 involved a contract for the sale of two aircraft and spare parts.

Under the contract, which was governed by English law, Dassault Aviation would sell the aircraft to Mitsui Bussan Aerospace (MBA). Under a separate contract (governed by Japanese law), MBA would subsequently on-sell the aircraft to the Japanese Coastguard.

MBA was concerned that, if Dassault delivered the aircraft late to MBA, this would affect delivery times under MBA’s contract with the Coastguard and MBA could be liable for late delivery to the Coastguard.

To protect itself against this risk, MBA took out an insurance policy from Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance (MSI) (which, despite the name, was not connected in any way with MBA). The insurance policy was governed by Japanese law.

As it happened, the aircraft were delivered late. MBA claimed under the insurance policy, and MSI duly paid the claim.

Under article 25 of the Japanese Insurance Act (No. 56 of 2008), where an insurer pays out under a Japanese policy of insurance, the insurer is automatically subrogated to any claim the policyholder may have in connection with the event that led to the pay-out. In other words, the policyholder’s right to claim damages passes automatically to the insurer.

Essentially, the same position applies in England and Wales under the common law. See the box “What is subrogation?” for more information.

In this scenario, this would mean that MBA’s right to claim against Dassault for breach of contract (due to the late delivery by Dassault) would pass to MSI, so that MSI could claim directly against Dassault.

However, the sale contract between Dassault and MBA contained the following clause (the assignment prohibition):

“[T]his Contract shall not be assigned or transferred in whole or in part by any Party to any third party, for any reason whatsoever, without the prior written consent of the other Party and any such assignment, transfer or attempt to assign or transfer any interest or right hereunder shall be null and void without the prior written consent of the other Party.”

Dassault argued that the prohibition prevailed and prevented MBA’s rights under the contract from transferring to MSI under the Insurance Act. If correct, this would mean that MSI would have no right to claim against Dassault to recover the amount it had paid out to MBA.

What is a subrogation?

Subrogation is a broad doctrine which essentially states that, if a person (X) pays or discharges a debt or obligation of someone else (Y), then X steps into Y’s shoes and acquires Y’s rights.

Under English law, subrogation applies in a wide range of circumstances, including the following.

  • When an insurer pays out to a policyholder. The insurer is subrogated to the policyholder’s rights and can take action in place of the policyholder. For example, an individual might take out buildings and contents insurance on their property and, at some point during the policy term, a leak develops, flooding the property and causing damage. The damage is caused by faulty workmanship by a plumber. The individual may be able to claim against the plumber in negligence but instead claims under their insurance policy. The insurer is subrogated to the claim in negligence against the plumber in place of the individual.
  • When a guarantor pays out under a guarantee. For example, a person (X) borrows a sum of money from a lender. Another person (Y) gives a guarantee for X’s obligation to repay the sum. The lender calls on the guarantee and Y repays the sum instead of X. By way of subrogation, Y can bring proceedings against X to claim back the amount Y has paid out to the lender. (This is also described as a right of reimbursement, rather than subrogation.)
  • Where a person pays someone else’s secured debt. For example, a person (K) takes out a mortgage loan from a bank, which is secured by a mortgage over K’s property. The mortgage becomes payable, but K’s colleague (L) pays the mortgage off instead of K. Until K reimburses L, L is subrogated to the mortgage security over the property. If K does not reimburse L, L can enforce the mortgage and take possession of the property (and sell it).
  • Where an agent pays out for their principal. For example, an individual appoints an agent to negotiate a purchase of land on the individual’s behalf. The purchase contract is settled and the individual is required to pay the purchase price. However, for whatever reason (perhaps for ease), the agent pays the purchase price. The seller transfers the land to the individual. By virtue of subrogation, until the agent is paid back, the agent has all the rights over the land which the seller had before the sale.

Subrogation can be complicated and how it works in practice varies greatly depending on the legal and factual circumstances. In many respects, subrogation is less a doctrine and more a form of remedy which a person who has discharged someone else’s obligations can seek in an appropriate form. The principal point of subrogation is that the person whose obligations have been discharged should not be unjustly enriched by failing to perform those obligations themselves.

However, one common factor to all types of subrogation is that it involves an automatic transfer of rights, which occurs by operation of law and does not require a specific assignment by anyone.

Initially, the dispute was referred to arbitration at the ICC in London. The arbitration panel held (by a majority) that MBA’s rights under the sale contract had transferred to MSI under the Insurance Act.

Dassault appealed to the High Court of England and Wales. The High Court overturned the arbitrators’ decision, finding that the prohibition was wide enough to capture a transfer by operation of law.

The High Court noted the words “by any Party” in the assignment prohibition were ambiguous and needed to be interpreted. It therefore embarked on the traditional process of contractual interpretation that applies when the wording of a contract is unclear. See the box “How will the court interpret a contract?” for more information.

It held that the words indicated an element of action or willingness by a Party, and that this was what was required for the prohibition to apply. A transfer would fall outside the prohibition only if it were outside the voluntary control of the transferring party (here, MBA).

In this case, although MBA had not directly assigned its rights to MSI, it had entered willingly into the insurance policy and made a claim under it, with the direct and predictable result that its rights would be transferred to MSI under the Insurance Act. In the High Court’s view, this amounted to an assignment by MBA and was caught by the prohibition.

MSI appealed to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

What did the Court of Appeal say?

The court re-examined the words “by any Party” and found that they were unambiguous and clear. They covered a transfer effected by a party to the sale contract, but that did not include a transfer that occurred automatically by operation of law (as was the case under the Insurance Act).

The judges disagreed with the High Court’s approach that the key question was whether the transfer was outside MBA’s voluntary control. Rather, it was a simple case of reading the contract to decide whether the transfer had been made by MBA.

It had not. The transfer had taken place automatically under the Insurance Act and so was not prohibited by the assignment prohibition.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that the sale contract between Dassault and MBA contained provisions that specifically contemplated the parties taking out insurance (Dassault insurance against loss or damage to certain specific equipment, and MBA insurance in connection with ferry flight delivering the aircraft).

Although these specific provisions did not cover the insurance policy that MBA had placed with MSI, they did indicate that the parties were happy for insurance to cover the arrangements, suggesting in turn that they understood that rights under the contract might transfer to an insurer.

The court found, therefore, that MBA’s rights had transferred to MSI and the assignment prohibition did not apply.

How will the court interpret a contract?

If the wording of an agreement is clear, the courts will assume that it reflects the parties’ intentions and enforce the literal word of the contract. This will be the case even if the result is unusual or uncommercial.

The only exception to this is where the parties’ agreement is in some way restricted by law. For example, the court may find that a clause is unenforceable as a restraint of trade, a contractual penalty, and unreasonable exclusion or limitation of liability, or an attempt to carry out unlawful acts. In these cases, the courts may be able to strike parts of the contract out to make it work.

However, if the wording of a contract is ambiguous and could have more than one meaning, the court must embark on a process of contractual interpretation (also called construction).

The law on contractual interpretation is now settled, following three landmark cases (Rainy Sky SA v Kookmin Bank [2011] UKSC 50; Arnold v Britton [2015] UKSC 36; and Wood v Capita Insurance Services Ltd [2017] UKSC 24).

In short, the court will examine the wording of the contract and ascertain what a reasonable person with all the relevant background knowledge at the time of the contract would have understood.

The court will look not only at the text of the contract, but also the surrounding context at the time. This is a single exercise, and the court will not automatically prefer the wording (textualism) over the surrounding circumstances (contextualism) or vice versa. However, the weight the court will give the text and the context will vary depending on the nature and formality of the contract.

If, after doing this, the court finds there is still more than one plausible interpretation of the contract, it will prefer the interpretation that is most consistent with business common sense.

What does this mean for me?

The case shows the importance of formulating any prohibition of assignment provisions properly.

Here, the court felt that the wording of the sale contract was clear. By using the words “by any Party”, the prohibition extended only to direct attempts by a party to assign their rights.

Had those words not appeared (e.g. “[T]his Contract shall not be assigned or transferred in whole or in part to any third party…”), the court may have been required to embark on a deeper analysis of the clause to understand whether it would have prohibited transfers by operation of law. Indeed, the court might have concluded that it would have done so.

The case revolved around automatic transfers under Japanese law. The position might well be different under English law. This point was not argued – both Dassault and MSI appear to have accepted that, had the contract been governed by English law, the transfer of rights to MSI would have taken place – and so the court did not need to decide the issue.

But that does not mean that it is impossible to exclude the right to subrogation through a prohibition of assignment, and contract parties may wish to ensure any contractual prohibitions are worded broadly enough that they at least make an attempt to do so.

However, whether this is appropriate will need to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and may be more obviously covered by agreeing a subrogation waiver. For example, it is very common for a buyer of a business to deploy warranty and indemnity (W&I) insurance and for the seller(s) to require the W&I insurer to expressly waive any rights of subrogation.

Conversely, most liability insurance policies contain an express obligation on the insured party not to enter into any agreement with a third party that might restrict the insurer’s right of recovery. A prohibition of assignment that excludes a right of subrogation may do exactly that and could, in theory, invalidate the insurance policy itself.

Where insurance arrangements are contemplated under a contract, the parties should have a mind to the potential implications from an insurance-law perspective, including any potential subrogation following a claim under an insurance policy.

Any contractual provisions that do contemplate insurance are unlikely to stipulate a particular governing law for the insurance, so it may not be possible to make an informed assessment. In addition, the party taking out insurance may well not inform the other party that they are doing so and/or might take out insurance of a type not contemplated by the contract.

In each case, this could lead to a contract party facing legal proceedings under the contract by a third party whose identity is not known at the date of the contract.

Ultimately, where a contract party intends in advance to procure insurance in relation to the subject matter of the contract, it is important to seek legal advice to ensure that the policy and the contract operate smoothly and clearly alongside each other.

Access the court’s decision on whether a contract prohibited an assignment by operation of law (Dassault Aviation SA v Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co. Ltd [2024] EWCA Civ 5)